The Buffalo Sabres have returned top prospect Sam Reinhart to major junior. Just before the decision, he spoke to THN about what lessons he will take back there from the NHL.
What happens when you’re caught between man among boys and boy among men?
It’s a question Jonathan Drouin had to answer a year ago, and it’s the same one Buffalo mega-prospect Sam Reinhart faces now. The Sabres announced Friday they were returning Reinhart to the Western League’s Kootenay Ice. At 18, he’s far from eligible for the American League, and he’d played his ninth NHL game, meaning one more would burn a year of his entry-level contract.
And the truth is Reinhart belongs in junior. Taken second overall in last June’s draft, he’s an oustanding prospect, a heady two-way center who can make everyone around him better. His superb hockey sense made plenty of scouts call him the draft class’ most NHL-ready player, but watching him this season suggested otherwise. His 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame isn’t quite ready to do battle against grown men. Tuesday when the Sabres visited Toronto, it was one of those games that had you checking the box score afterward to make sure he played. He was a non-entity, registering one shot and little else in 12:41 of ice time. That was largely the case through Reinhart’s first nine NHL games, in which he averaged 10:21 and managed one assist and three shots. In that tiny sample, his 31.1 Fenwick Close rating was 565th out of 568 qualifying NHLers.
Those numbers aren’t meant to harp on Reinhart. He has an outstanding career ahead of him. They do, however, suggest the Sabres were smart to send him down. And, to his credit, he gets it. I spoke with him after Tuesday’s game in Toronto. The elephant in the hallway was that he had one more game until his probable return to the WHL. In his short stay, he learned plenty. He lists veterans Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick, Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges as hugely helpful with their day-to-day advice. And game situations opened his eyes as well.
“Obviously you knew it was going to be a challenge,” Reinhart said. “It’s the best thing in the world, and to try and make the jump is difficult. The biggest thing I’ve tried to focus on and learned is the pace and intensity. It’s not as much the speed skating up and down the ice – it’s the overall speed and intensity with the puck. To want the puck, that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned.”
And it’s a philosophy Reinhart will implement with Kootenay, which has sputtered to a 3-12-0 start in his absence. For him, going home cannot be about re-establishing routines. It has to be different. He has to bring back what he gained at the NHL level and apply it to his game.
“It’s going to be tough, but the biggest thing I have to do is play with the same intensity that I have to here,” Reinhart said. “Not that it’s going to be easy by any means back home, back in junior, but it could get easy to think so.”
He has the perfect model to follow in Drouin, who went third overall to Tampa in 2013 and was a surprise cut from the Lightning roster a year ago. Drouin didn’t rest on his laurels. He was a dominant force upon returning to Halifax and played a major role for Canada at the world juniors. And Reinhart can do the same. It takes him a split second to make the Drouin connection when I bring it up:
Spoken like a young man who knows precisely what he needs to do going forward.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin